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Old Navy Ways Explained





Even many civilians will recognise many civilians would recognise alot of these sayings, many of which are in daily use today.  You didn't know they had they origins in the Navy did you?


The Church Pendant

Is the oldest flag in our code of signals, dating from the early struggles between the British and the Dutch. Both sides were Roman Catholic, and decided mutually that some form of signal was necessary to call a truce whilst prayers were being said. At this stage war had not lost all chivalry. The colours of both nations were sewn together, and at the part next to the mast you may see the flag of England, whist the rainder is the ensign of the Netherlands.


A Dog Watch

Though a curtailed watch, was originally called a "dodge" watch. Designed to make the day have seven watches instead of six, in order that the men who had the middle watch might dodge it the next day.


Davy Jones

This was "Duffy", or ghost, of Jonah" - Duffy being an old English word for ghost.


Blue Peter

The signal to denote a ship will shortly sail, derives its name from the French "patir" meaning 'to depart.'



In which we live, comes from the spanish 'mesa', a table.


One Gun Salute (or rogues salute)


Is the signal gun fired for the assemblage of a court martial


Splice the Mainbrace


In the Royal Navy it means that a double issue of rum (or now beer) will be served. Thought to derive from the fact that the mainbrace (in a sailing ship) would seldom, if ever, be spliced. On account of its size and the rarity of the occasion. Those who performed the work were probably rewarded with an extra tot.


Half Masting Colours


A sign of mourning. Said to be accompanied by other signs of untidiness in olden times: .eg. leaving yards cocked, or ropes hanging lossely, etc. A more poetical explanation is offered. Many know that when a prize is captured the White Ensign is hoisted superior to the national flag of the prize. It is suggested that the ensign is worn at half mast in order to make room for the invisible colours of death, who invariably wins the last encounter.


Show a Leg


Dates from the times when wives sailed in men-o'-war. On calling the hands the owners of the finine legs were allowed to rain abed until Guard and Steerage.




Dates from the same times. Infants were born under the guns, and once or twice a gun had been fired to assist a difficult birth. Records of this have been found in old diaries.




Admiral Vernon insisted on having the rum watered down before issue, and he always wore grogam clothing, he was nick named "Old Grog"




The uniform trousers of a seaman of height about 5ft 10ins measure 25 inches round the bottom. It is said that the practice of making sailors' trousers very full arose from the days when the men made their own clothes, when they found it easier and less wasteful of material to use the full width of the material. A bolt of serge in Britain has for years measured 54" across. This, allowing for two, two inch turn-ins, would be just perfect for two trousers legs. That wide trousers legs were subsequently found to be easier to roll up when scrubbing decks is often given as the reason why trousers were made wide, but it seems that this was not the original reason.




The bowline was originally a special knot used by archers for securing their bowstrings




In its early days, this expression was a naval one, meaning "reprimanded". The Army, however, produced the expression in the early stages of the 1939-45 war, with the meaning "fed up". This, by frequent usage, has now become the accepted meaning of the expression.




Common slang expression, meaning "The secret is out". From the practice of keeping the Naval cat o' nine tails in a red baize bag and not removing it until the offender was secured to the gratings and there was no possibility of a reprieve.




Chock-a-block is an old Naval expression, meaning "Complete" or "Full up"; synonyms were "Two blocks" and "Block and block". It derives from the use of a hauling tackle - when the two blocks of the purchase were touching each other the lower one could obviously be hoisted no further, and so the work was completed. Modern slang has corrupted the expression to "Chocker", meaning "Fed up".




It is the custom when sewing up a corpse previous to burial at sea for the sailmaker (or other rating doing this job) to put the last stitch through the nose of the corpse. This is done to make certain that the body is indeed a corpse, since it happened once that when the sailmaker inadvertently put his needle through the nose of the body, the alleged corpse suddenly made a move to sit up, the shock of having his nose pierced being sufficient to revive him from his state of catalepsy.




The Red Ensign was introduced into the Navy in 1625 and was being worn by merchant ships soon afterward; in 1674 it became the legal and recognised flag of the merchant service. In about 1650 the Royal Navy was using all three ensigns; the fleet was divided into Red, White and Blue Squadrons, each commanded by a Flag Officer of the appropriate colour and his ships were ensigns or pendants of that colour. All three ensigns remained in use in the Navy in his manner until 1864 when the Red Ensign was made the exclusive `property' of the Merchant Service. The White Ensign was then reserved for the Royal Navy, and the Blue Ensign for the then newly formed Royal Naval Reserve. The Blue Ensign may now be worn by merchant ships commanded by an officer of the R.N.R. with at least six more R.N.R. persons in the complement. The blue ensign defaced is worn by ships belonging to various government departments. The R.N. Minewatching Service is also authorised to use the blue ensign defaced. The white ensign may be worn by ships of the Royal Yacht Squadron. All yachts wearing flags other than the normal red ensign must be in possession of a special Admiralty warrant authorising this.




Miss Fanny (or Frances) Adams was a child aged 9 who was murdered at Alton, Hants on 24th April 1867. The murderer (Frederick Baker, a solicitor's clerk aged 24) cut up the body into pieces some of which were said to have been found in Deptford Victualling yard. Baker was tried at Winchester and hanged in December 1867. At about this time tinned mutton was introduced into the Navy and somewhat naturally it soon acquired the name of Fanny Adams. The tins themselves were found very useful by the sailors as mess gear (there was no official issue of mess gear in those days) and to this day the name FANNY remains attached to the small round "mess kettle" (similar in appearance to a painter's pot - also called a kettle).




A nautical measurement of six feet; it was the distance between the tips of middle fingers when the arms are outstretched sideways to their fullest extent (the word comes from the Danish FAVN meaning "arms extended"). 100 fathoms = 1 cable; 10 cables = 1 mile; 3 miles = 1 league.




An old naval expression meaning to take a risk of receiving severe punishment. It comes from the old naval punishment awarded to men convicted of theft, when the offender made his way between two ranks of men each of whom was provided with a rope's end with which to lash him; the offender was prevented from running too quickly by the Master-At-Arms holding a sword to the offender's breast.




Ships are always feminine, whatever their names. The classical author, Plautus (second century BC), wrote: "If a man is looking for trouble he only has to buy a ship or take a wife; both of them will always need trimming




In 1871, Admiralty issued instructions by circular letter (of 18th December, 1871) that corporal punishment was to be inflicted only in cases (1) mutiny and (2) using or offering violence to a superior officer. Circular letter of 16th September, 1879, directed that no Commanding Officer was to award a sentence of corporal punishment exceeding 25 lashes. On 10th January, 1881, a Bill to amend the Naval Discipline Act of 1866 with a view to abolishing corporal punishment was presented to the House of Commons. This was finally withdrawn on 12th July, 1881, but on 3rd August, 1881, Admiralty issued instructions that the power of Command Officers to award corporal punishment was suspended until further orders. Administrative action was taken in 1881 to advise Court-martial convening authorities that corporal punishment was not to be awarded without Admiralty approval - one assumes that Admiralty approval would not be given. Authority to award corporal punishment was finally removed from the Naval Discipline Act by an Order-in-Council dated 29th March, 1949; the only form of corporal punishment which now remains is a maximum of twelve cuts with a cane for Boy ratings. The "cat" itself was a whip with nine lashes; the French name for it was "martinet" (from the Marquis de Martinet, a French Colonel of the 17th Century who was a great disciplinarian). Originally it was made by the victim, but later it was introduced as a ready-made Naval store item.




An old mythological story was that one of the rivets in the lower parts of the ship's hull was made of gold. The golden rivet is as fabulous as the Key of the Starboard watch and a Hammock ladder and, like them, has covered many a new entry with confusion.


SON OF A GUN (another, similar explanation)


Although frequently used as meaning a "good fellow", this is really an old naval expression casting aspersions on a man's parentage. In the days when women were allowed on board during a ship's stay in port, the gun decks were often the scenes of debauchery; and if a male child was born he was called a Son of a Gun. An old description of such is "he was begotten in the galley and born under a gun: every hair a rope yarn, every finger a fish-hook, every tooth a marline spike and his blood right good Stockholm tar"; he would be christened "Tom Bowline" or "Bill Backstay" or some such name. Tom Bowline was a famous character who died of wounds in 1790 and was buried at Haslar; he went ashore once in seventeen years.




Just as his rifle is described as a soldier's best friend, his hammock is described as a sailer's best friend. When properly lashed up, a sailor's hammock will support a man in the sea for 24 hours. It is said that the use of the hammock on board ship was introduced by Aloibiados, who commanded the Athenian fleets war in about B.C. 450; Christopher Columbus is also credited with the introduction, having found (in 1493) that the natives at San Salvador slept in cotton nets (called 'hamaca') suspended between two trees. Hammocks were introduced into the Royal Navy in about 1600. The hammock campbed (which can be simply converted from a hammock to a camp-bed or vice (versa) was introduced in 1954.




To go through the hoop is to undergo an ordeal. From the old practice in some ships of passing hammocks through a hoop gauge to check that they were of uniform size and appearance before allowing them to be stowed in the hammock nettings.




Flogging or working a dead horse is doing something for nothing. It is a merchant navy term, a 'dead horse' being a slang term used to refer to an advance of pay given to seamen before commencing voyages in order that they may buy clothing etc., required on the trip. Thus, 'working a deadhorse' meant working for the first month without pay since that had already been drawn and spent. At the expiration of the first month of the voyage it was at one time customary to hoist in the rigging a canvas effigy of a horse.




An old Naval name for a picnic party, especially nowadays by bus. The word "Banyan" originates from the time when, as an economy, meat was not issued on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays: these days were called "Banyan Days" after a religious sect in the East which believed it wicked to eat meat. It became the custom for men to save up portions of their rations to tide them over these meatless days, and also to be sent ashore on those days to gather fruit. Meatless days were discontinued in 1884.




Usually shortened to "The devil to pay", this means "difficult times are imminent", and so "trouble is brewing". Caulking and paying the side of a wooden vessel from devil to waterline was a very difficult and arduous job; unless the supply of pitch was really hot it was made all the more arduous.




It has long been the custom of H.M. Ships returning home to pay off after a commission abroad to wear a paying-off pendant. It is to be noted that this is a custom only - it is not an officially - authorised action, nor is the pendant itself provided from official sources. Being unofficial, no instructions about it appear in any naval regulations. The pendant is invariably white with a red St George's cross at the hoist; at the end of the fly a balloon or (formerly) a bladder - sometimes gilded - is often attached to keep the fly clear of the water. The custom is said to have originated in the XIX century, when all cleaning rags were stitched together and hoisted as a sign that they were finished with. Later, when "proper" paying-off pendants were made on board, it became the custom for every member of the ship's company to put in a few stitches. Nowadays the pendants are invariably bought ashore at the expense of the ship's welfare fund. As the paying-off pendant is itself unofficial, there can be no authoritative rules about its length; the following have been cited - (a) the length of the ship if the commission has lasted the correct length of time with additions or abatements from that length corresponding to the difference between the actual length of the commission and the 'normal' length of a commission; (b) the length of the ship plus one foot for every month completed on the station; (c) one and a third times the length of the ship; (d) one and half times the height of the foremast. It should be borne in mind that the commission referred to is the length of time the ship's company has been abroad, not the ship herself: when a ship recommissions abroad a fresh commission is started; thus a commission of longer than 2 years is exceptional.





Naval abbreviation of the word "Perquisites", referring to allowances, either in money or in kind, given with any particular office or appointment




Saluting with the hand was introduced into the Navy by Queen Victoria to take the place of uncovering the head as a mark of respect. Saluting with the left hand, alternatively to the right hand, was abolished in 1923 out of deference to India. When going on board an H.M. Ship it is customary to salute when going over the side whether the gangway leads to the quarter-deck or not.